I wouldn’t want to try to kid anyone and imply that I was a close friend of Julia Child, but I knew she was a spy.
So I wasn’t really surprised at the field day the international media had yesterday when the National Archives unclassified files identifying Child, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and nearly 24,000 other people as spies fighting the Nazi menace in President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly created Office of Strategic Services.
My first meeting with the chef who changed how millions cooked was in the mid-1970s, when I was working out of the Newsweek office in Boston. I visited her in her century-old Victorian house in Cambridge, Mass. Sitting in the carefully structured havoc of her wonderful kitchen – robin’s-egg blue cabinets, her big Garland stove, copper pots and bowls everywhere – she made me a grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwich and told me it was her favorite dish “that didn’t contain butter or cream.”
While waiting, I took a copy of the bible – “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – off her bookshelf. I knew that she, and two French women – Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle – had toiled 10 years to complete the 1961 classic, which starts off, “This is a book for the servantless American cook�”
She was kind enough to ask if I’d “used” the book.
Showing a complete lack of good graces and common decency, I told her that some of the recipes were too complicated and wondered how many new cooks rushed off in tears stymied by the two pages of detailed instructions for making Coq Au Vin.
“Get over it,” she told me in her wonderful warbling voice. adding that recipes are not a road map, but a guide through a world of flavors, textures, tastes and fun. Those words – and her bluntness – made me a better cook.
That was the only meal she cooked for me, but we shared the same table several other times.
The next time we met was in March 1995 at Antonio Allegra’s annual, week-long Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.
One evening, when about 30 of the nation’s top cookbook authors and food writers – plus me — were sitting around a towering fireplace, drinking port or something stronger, we chatted about of the nation’s worst-kept secret: the doomsday bunker.
Codenamed Greek Island, it was 64 feet below where we were sitting and its 5-foot-thick walls would protect 1,000 people — all 535 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and their top aides, from the A-bomb that the Cold War promised to deliver some day.
I told Child that both my parents had worked at the Greenbrier decades earlier and while they occasionally hinted, neither shared the secret of the bunker.
She smiled and called them “good people,” and said that’s what “we in the intelligence business count on.”
I said that I thought she had worked in the OSS typing pool in Ceylon or Paris. She smiled, sipped some clear liquid that wasn’t white wine, and said that was what everyone was supposed to believe.
What was I to think? Here was this icon of all things culinary, the woman who taught America that there was more to special meals than green bean casseroles topped with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions. A spy?
She told me that she wanted to do her part in the war but, at 6-foot-2, she said she was too tall to get into the military, was bored with working at the War Department, so she applied to the OSS. Soon she found herself working in Washington as a researcher in the Intelligence Division for top spy Gen. Bill Donovan. Child claimed she did little more than gather long lists of names.
But then she winked.
The 130-page report on Child that was released yesterday by the Archives said that while working for the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, she handled several clandestine operations in China and elsewhere where she was “registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications.”
She met her husband, Paul Child, who was working for the OSS in the 1940s.
In 1963, long before the Food Network was ever thought of, Child’s unpretentious, no-nonsense approach to cooking was bringing tens of thousands of new viewers to public television, first in Boston, then across the country. She started her TV career at age 50. She won an Emmy and a Peabody and millions of home cooks willing to take a risk. Her 39-part-series “Baking with Julia,” is still being shown on public television in Seattle.
She was a favorite on both the morning and the late night shows.
On the Letterman Show in 1989, Child was going through the steps of a French favorite and, mallet in hand, told Letterman that first one needed to pound the duck. In a retort that became an instant TV classic, the host responded that that was how he spent his homecoming night.
God, did that woman love to eat.
At a conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, I think in San Antonio, six of us went to Morton’s for dinner. Child and I were sharing about two pounds of asparagus. The server offered a silver serving boat filled with hollandaise sauce. “All of it,” she said with the roguish smile of hers, pointing to the veggies. I got three stalks. She got the rest, which slowed her not a bit in handling two pounds of very rare tenderloin. Of course, dessert followed.
Butter and cream are among the best reasons to live a long life. They are the essential food group, I recall her explaining while dipping her bread in the remaining sauce.
At another foodie event in California, I told her about a cartoon I had showing three spy-looking characters standing in front of a wall of filing cabinets labeled with several of the CIA’s more noteworthy blunders. It was signed by President George H. Bush, who was also CIA director. “Who Knows,” he wrote.
I gave her a copy after the steakhouse dinner and she roared.
“The poor CIA,” I remember her saying. “We had it so much better. There weren’t congressional committees looking over our shoulder and politics never entered the picture. We just did what we must to protect our country.”
So I asked flat out, “Were you a spy?”
“What’s a spy?,” she answered. We just collected a bit of information here and there, she said with that electric smile of hers. Flamboyance and grace in a tall package.
On Aug. 13, 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday, Child died in her sleep of kidney failure. Not the cardio-vascular collapse that health experts and proponents of fat-free diets had predicted almost every time she shoveled yet another pound of butter into a pan.
In a farewell editorial, the Boston Globe said: “Child’s goal never seemed to be perfection, only pleasure. She stood fearlessly before calories and rich food armed with her wise strategy of moderation: eating a little bit of everything to avoid missing anything.”
Now the world knows that cooking wasn’t her only fearless act.
Bon appetit, Julia.